As a student in the fourth grade of Saint Thomas Aquinas School in East Lansing, Michigan, I looked about me and saw a great landscape whose meaning lay in the saints who had moved across it and prayed within it. Michigan, you see, is a Catholic country, and America a Catholic land.
So much at least did we learn under the instruction of Mrs. Rambo, the Americanized spelling of whose name thinly veiled her French ancestry. As she taught us our Michigan history, we learned with some pride that ours was the only state that could put “three square meals on the table” from what was raised and grown within its borders. But that achievement in autarky, in sufficing for ourselves, great though it was, paled in comparison with the many other astonishing tales we were told—tales that taught us that what man may do for himself, by his own hard work, is nowhere near as thrilling as what God may do by grace for and through those who serve him.
For Michigan, surrounded by the Great Lakes, was among the places the French missionaries and traders came centuries ago, moving by canoe along the navigable bodies of water, to encounter the Indians, trade with them, live alongside them, and instruct them in the gospel. This communion of the French Jesuits with the Indians was one of several founding moments of America. The Jesuits at every opportunity consecrated places and events to Our Lady, no such instance of which is more striking than Jacques Marquette’s naming the Mississippi the River of the Immaculate Conception. Through these acts of prayer, this offering of the land to the Mother of God, they consecrated America, piece by piece, as a Catholic country.
Mrs. Rambo’s instruction was so winsome that when our studies led us at last to the French and Indian War, we all naturally sided with the French and Indians, those Catholic peoples, against the British, those redcoats, those aggressive Protestants, who would in the end succeed in exiling the true faith to Quebec. When we learned of the American Revolution soon thereafter, our allegiance remained the same. George Washington, I suppose we must have thought, was casting off the yoke of a Protestant monarchy to make possible what we were all actually experiencing, right there, in the flats of southern Michigan: the freedom to be a Catholic people in a land consecrated by saints.
When I was asked by the Benedict XVI Institute to write a poem in commemoration of Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas, which the Institute had commissioned, I knew that some part of that early education would find a place within it. In fact, I knew in my heart that it must be called The River of the Immaculate Conception, though I was not quite sure yet what that would mean.
La Rocca’s Mass was composed for performance within the liturgy for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In 2018, when the Mass premiered, that feast coincided with San Franciscans’ annual Cruzada Guadalupana, a pilgrimage made in honor of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. La Rocca had been asked to draw on the traditional hymns of Mexico, and on prayers in the Spanish and Aztec languages, and to harmonize them with English and Latin. His Mass thus celebrates our country as one consecrated to the Immaculate Conception, but one which also lives under the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of all the Americas. La Rocca’s Mass asks us to learn to see the Americas as one in their Catholic faith, just as Pope Saint John Paul II asked us to do in Ecclesia in America (1999). The Americas are many, our countries are many, but we are all citizens of the City of God.
Those Protestant redcoats I sided against in the fourth grade suggest to us a history of America’s settlement that Robert Frost expressed wonderfully in his poem “The Gift Outright.” American history, in Frost’s view, is the tale of our taking possession of a land, but only gradually coming to belong to it. When I turned my hand to the poem, I wanted to acknowledge that history, and so a later part of the poem (the fifth part of seven), named from a line in La Rocca’s Mass, “Gloriosa dicta sunt de te,” begins as follows:
When we think of our land, we often think
Of those bare wilds waiting to be claimed,
As if it were a force of will alone
That made it ours, and mixing sweat with dust,
Its matter with our labor, what was nothing
Becomes somehow a thing that might be loved,
Be built upon and put to use, defended.
Recalling my own pride at Michigan’s self-sufficiency, I concluded the stanza,
I have been one of those who stand in awe
Of pioneers and makers of great things,
Of those who slice a sharp spade through thick roots.
But in the next stanzas, I ask us, as Mrs. Rambo once asked her students, to think of our land not in terms of the raw materials of which we took possession, but as “a stage” where God’s grace can act upon us, take possession of us, transform us. And then, I recall just that lesson as it was taught to me. The saint after whom my school was named, after all, was himself named after his place of origin. Thomas Aquinas was an itinerant fellow, to be sure, but the land of his birth was the stage, the scene, the concrete place where grace first brought his holy life into being. Those of us from the Great Lakes cannot help but notice that many of our places have been named just for those French Jesuits who did little more in those places than submit themselves to be instruments of divine grace. They thereby helped make our lives and salvation possible.
Daniel Sargent, in his lovely book Our Land and Our Lady (1940), tells us that the French travelers to Quebec were of modest means. It was not only natural, but also economical, for them to slip “along the wilderness’s veins,” that is to say, its rivers. They moved not by their own force, but by a grace that impelled them, including as it were the grace of the current that bore them.
Sargent contrasts these seventeenth-century French ventures with those of the Spanish, begun more than a century earlier. The Spanish were prosperous, powerful conquistadors. They advanced on horseback, marching over the land rather than flowing along with its streams, leveling all that stood in their way. Sargent and a more recent historian, Kevin Starr, in his Continental Ambitions (2016), movingly suggest the moral meaning of the Spanish history in America.
The Spanish came to conquer, and conquer they did. The deaths of the native peoples at their hands, whether directly through forced labor or indirectly through the spread of diseases transmitted from the Old World, are beyond all calculation. Surrounded by so much death, we may be forgiven for overlooking what also happened. The Spanish missionaries to the New World, enmeshed though they were in an empire hungry for gold, very early began to perceive the dignity of the native peoples, to oppose their exploitation, and to seek their conversion. Starr’s history of the Spanish conquest in fact begins late in the year 1511, when “the Dominican friar Antonia de Montesinos preached against the Spaniards’ genocide of the indigenous peoples.” An agonizing, slow conversion had begun. Later Franciscans would come to see those same people as a chosen people with whom they could build up a new Christendom better than the old.
Amid overwhelming brutality—on the part of the Spanish, but also, not infrequently, on the part of the natives against the Spanish—the story of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1488–1557) is instructive. Like many of his contemporaries, he came for gold and to restore the fortunes of a minor noble house in decline. His expedition miscarried off the gulf coast of Florida, and over the next eight years, he experienced enslavement and miracles as he made his way along that coast and followed it south, back into Mexico. During that time, de Vaca was converted, transformed from a “hidalgo” to a Christian and brother of the native peoples. He had come to conquer, but was himself conquered by the grace of Christ.
If de Vaca offers an allegorical drama of the Spanish experience in America as a whole, that experience’s meaning found its first and finest expression with the revelation of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Aztec man Juan Diego. She revealed not only that God also called the native peoples of the Americas to himself, but that the true history of the Americas was just that gradual discernment of de Vaca and others, that the New World was not a vast landscape to be strip-mined, but a place of grace where all who enter within it are called to give themselves to Christ and seek the protection of his Mother.
I wrote, therefore, a “Hymn of Juan Diego.” When Juan Diego first sees Our Lady, he also sees and hears this:
And every color of the stones
For which the Spaniards killed
Became the turquoise and the gold
With which the sky was filled.
“All those who seek me, Little One,
Will have me for their mother;
And those by pride or greed estranged
Will someday call you brother.”
Of every person in this land of ours, we may ask, “What did they come for?” The answer seems to be that we always set out to the right place for the wrong reasons. Saint Augustine sailed for Rome, in search of easier living and in flight from his pious mother. He thought he was escaping God, but God was in fact leading the young sinner back to his ways. When we think we are in flight, Christ is in fact bringing us to himself. As I wrote in the poem:
They came first with a gaze of jewel-eyed wonder
To find so rich a land—and one that grew
With every legend of a golden city.
De Vaca came for conquest, one hidalgo
In search of honor lost in time, but found
Himself a naked pilgrim marched in chains,
A blistered holy man who signed the cross
To drive the devil from the Indians’ wounds;
At last, a chaste colonial, dismayed,
As those he’d known rode north to sate their lusts.
We do not make the meaning of the world, but gradually perceive it, often with great pain and after many failures and reversals. De Vaca learned God’s will with certainty, even as most of his companions in captivity did not. Because the truth is so hard and uneven in its discernment, we may understandably be tempted to say, as it were, that a country is just what we make it, as if it were just a matter of whoever plants a flag first or with the strongest pole. But flags become torn and tattered in the wind. A prayer, once said, consecrates a land forever, returns it as a gift to the Father who first gave it to us.
In the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the child Jesus shapes clay into birds on the Sabbath. When he is scolded by an adult, he brings the clay birds to life and they fly into the air. Just so is the mud beneath our feet that composes our land. Not only is it there, waiting to be transformed by Christ. It has already been consecrated as the place where all who walk upon it may be conformed to Christ. Ours is a Catholic country, not because of what we have done there, but because there has been prepared a place for God to do something—by some saint’s naming of a prayer and our remembering that, in turn, by naming the place for the saint.
The land I looked out on through my classroom window years ago may have been a land of saints, but, in many ways, it was also still a land of “redcoats.” But I was not looking with merely human eyes, but with the eyes of the Church, the eyes of the saints who came to this place before me. I was seeing what this place, by their naming it for the Mother of God, would someday—will someday, and only after a long and slow gestation—come at last and forever to be.
James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.